For Dr. Valeria Vergara, Cunningham Inlet couldn’t be a more perfect place to conduct research.
A research associate at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, Vergara has been investigating beluga calls for more than a decade with a special focus on the communication system between mothers and their young. For the past two summers, she has visited this remote corner of Nunavut, a summertime home to hundreds of beluga whales who come to socialize, rear their young calves, and rub in the shallows to aid with skin moulting. In the quiet, calm estuaries of the Arctic, the calls of beluga whales are nearly the only sounds around, creating a natural laboratory for a scientist intent on eavesdropping. But that could soon change.
Canada’s Arctic is under threat. The polar region is warming at nearly twice the rate of the world average and this unprecedented change will have consequences that reach far beyond its icy shores. Melting sea ice stands to open up once-isolated Arctic waters to ship traffic, fishing, tourism and industry, while complex changes in weather and ocean currents are leading to an increase in invasive species, disease migration and extreme weather events across the globe.
Yet most people know little about the challenges facing Canada’s Arctic—or about this fragile region at all.
Our North comprises 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass and nearly 70 per cent of its shorelines. It is home to almost 100,000 Canadians and some of the most iconic wildlife in the country. For approximately 45 years, the Vancouver Aquarium has been drawing attention to this vital region, and the work needed to protect it — it continues its focus on the Arctic with an ambitious expansion project and public awareness campaign. Part of the campaign is to help raise $28 million for an expansive new Arctic gallery that will help the public learn about and form emotional connections with Canada’s Arctic and build on our strong history of education, conservation and research. The new Canada’s Arctic Gallery will promote knowledge and understanding of Arctic environmental concerns, host educational programming and include new, larger habitats for our belugas—a species that is particularly vulnerable to the shifting Arctic climate.
Often called the “canaries of the sea,” belugas have long been known to be the most vocal whale species, using their clicks, whistles and chirps to keep track of one another in pitch dark Arctic winters. “These animals are incredibly social, so the glue of their society is sound,” Vergara explains. Historically, little has been known about the significance of specific calls, or the potential effects of man-made noise on beluga populations, but that is beginning to change.
Since 2002, Vergara has been working to decode this aquatic language, starting with her work at the Vancouver Aquarium. By studying interactions between beluga calf Tuvaq, his mother Aurora, his half-sister Qila, and other adults, Vergara was able to identify important contact calls between mother and calf, as well as those used for group cohesion. She noticed Tuvaq emitted lower-frequency sounds than the adults, akin to running a finger over a comb. Years later, she observed the same patterns among mother-calf pairs in Cunningham Inlet, leading to two important conclusions: contact calls from calves are easily distinguished from other beluga chatter, and, like human babies, very young calves have a limited communication range that expands as they grow.
Vergara’s work at the Aquarium and in Cunningham Inlet may be of use in understanding the effects of underwater noise on beluga communication in busier waters, such as in Quebec’s St. Lawrence estuary, where beluga populations are in serious decline.
This work is just one example of the way the Vancouver Aquarium is investing in the future of the Arctic. With more than one million visitors to the Vancouver Aquarium every year and over 35 million connections through our digital channels, the Aquarium has the ability, and frankly, the responsibility, to convey critical information about our iconic North. We hope you’ll join us in protecting our Arctic for generations to come.
To learn more about our Arctic programs or to donate to the campaign, visit vanaqua.com/ournorth.
Read more about Dr. Vergara’s research here.